What is it? What is the big deal about Mikimoto? Surely you have heard his name. In the pearl business buyers love to throw around the Mikimoto name… especially by saying things like, “my Mikimoto’s” Other people have no clue …”miki-what?” So, I am here to tell you the big deal with Mikimoto!
Some people will always refer to their copy machine as a Xerox. Why? It is the OLDEST name in copy machines. So, even if it is not a Xerox by brand name… it is a xerox machine! Feminine products are tampax because Tampax is the OLDEST name in feminine products. Do you catch my drift? Old names set the standard (sometimes) and the oldest name in cultured pearls is Mikimoto.
Picture it, historically people had experienced with manipulating oysters to produce pearls. Why not? Pretty much everyone has agreed that pearls are worthy of their high value and therefore worth reproducing. But, it was Mikimoto Kokichi who really put it all out there to actually start a cultured pearl farm in 1888. By 1893 he had his first cultured pearl. By the early 1900s he was actually able to culture a round cultured pearl and things really took off from there.
So what is the big deal about Mikimoto? He is THE guy behind today’s phenomena of cultured pearls. What else? He caused major waves in the pearl industry. First, he angered a lot of people. Picture it, prior to the early 1900s, the pearl market consisted of natural pearls. A natural pearl is a pearl spontaneously produced by nature. They are rarer and therefore they are a lot more expensive than their cultured pearl counterparts. So, when cultured pearl entered the scene they were gorgeous pearls and they were a lot cheaper and usually rounder than natural pearls. (In general, I generally think of cultured pearls more predictable than natural pearls). So, what happened to the eponymous Mikimoto? He was sued! That’s right! He showed up on the pearl scene with his cultured pearls and those dealers of natural pearls took him to court. And that is how we have the term “cultured pearl.” Nowadays, people use it as a badge of honor to guarantee that pearls are not fake. I get asked all the time, “Are these cultured pearls?” What people are really asking is, are these real or fake? But, originally, the term was meant to indicate that the pearls were not natural pearls. A cultured pearl, among some circles, were considered a bad thing, not a good thing!
What else did Mikimoto do? He is a big deal because he put a whole lot of pearl divers out of business. The Persian Gulf was known for their natural pearls and divers were diving consistently for pearls. When cultured pearls flooded the market, the demand for natural pearls fell drastically and many people in the natural pearl industry lost their means and livelihood. For one, the divers in the Persian Gulf lost their jobs.
So, who has Mikimoto pearls? Well, lots of people from the WWII generation. After the second world war when the Allied forces occupied Japan, they feared an illegal pearl trade. So, pearls sales were discouraged within Japan. Instead, the Japanese sold pearls in military stores frequented by Allied troops. See more on my post: Why does your grandmother have graduated pearls?
Because Mikimoto has the name recognition, many people are drawn to the Mikimoto pearls. I remember asking my first pearl professor at the Gemological Institute of America why Mikimoto pearls are so expensive and she said, simply, “the name.”
In the 1980s, I traveled to Japan with my family and my Dad bought my first strand of pearls. My father, of course, thought that he needed to buy Mikimoto’s. But, the Japanese people assured him there are many gorgeous pearls that do not have the Mikimoto name or signature clasp.
But Mikimoto will always carry the legacy as the founder of our modern-day cultured pearls. Good or bad, expensive or overpriced, there are many reasons and perspectives on why Mikimoto was, and remains to be, a big deal.